The late writer and cultural icon Susan Sontag once famously said, “I haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on my list.” It’s not clear whether Sontag preferred sea voyages to other forms of travel, but she certainly possessed the boat lover’s drive to push beyond known harbors in an effort to behold that perfect, undiscovered cove or beach. For sailors and boaters, the pleasure of experiencing these hidden wonders is heightened by the fact that mere mortals traveling by car or foot can spend hours, days, even weeks trying to reach such spots, while arrival by water takes only curiosity and courage. Being sea-loving souls, we understand the value of wise navigation. So with our compass pointed toward true adventure, we direct you now to seven of the world’s most beautiful undiscovered coves and beaches. As for the courage and curiosity to seek them out? That’s where you come in.
Punalu’u Beach, Hawaii
Thanks to crushed volcanic rock particles and ash, Punalu’u Beach is a mesmerizing world of black sand on the northeast coast of the Big Island of Hawaii. Coconut palms ring the upper edge of this strikingly dark beach, while large honu (Hawaiian green sea turtles) can be found swimming just offshore or lounging like lazy tourists on the sand. Because of the beach’s strong currents, the small boat ramp here is the best place for swimmers to take to the ocean. Interestingly, once you are submerged—either for a dip or to snorkel with the turtles—you may feel as if you’re swimming in cold and warm water at the same time. The reason? Undersea, freshwater springs in Punalu’u bay emit cool streams that rise to the top of the warmer, denser salt water.
Isla Holbox, Mexico
It’s not entirely accurate to say that Isla Holbox offers Mexico’s last secret beach. After all, the planet’s largest fish have known about it for years. Between June and September each year, 40-foot whale sharks call the dulcet shores of this island home. Part of the protected area of the Yum Balam, Mexico’s largest ecological reserve, and located where the Gulf of Mexico meets the Caribbean Sea, Holbox remains a mostly undeveloped, unspoiled spot with a number of stunning beaches that make for idyllic escapes. Indeed, escaping from civilization is in Holbox’s DNA: The island’s history includes providing asylum for fugitives, as well as serving as an 18th-century stopover for Spanish and Italian pirates en route to the Mexican mainland. And according to local legend, in the summer of 1953 Fidel Castro and Che Guevara met on Holbox before returning to Cuba, just 300 miles east, to launch la revolución. Those of us whose form of revolt is simply to hit the open waters can take heart in the fact that the island’s local sailing school puts together yearly regattas that include children cruising with experienced teachers up and down the coast in adorable tiny sailboats.
Shipwreck Cove, Zakynthos, Greece
You may find it curious that we would direct boat owners to a spot called Shipwreck, but this idyllic cove and beach on the northwest coast of the Greek Ionian island of Zakynthos has been called the world’s most beautiful spot by many fearless travelers—and frankly, no one is arguing the point. There is only one way to enjoy the stunning vertical cliffs that shelter the cove or to stand upon its pebbly beach and look out onto turquoise blue waters: Arrive by sea. As for the cove’s eponymous shipwreck, it occurred in 1980 when a suspected smuggler hit some rocks in bad weather while being pursued by the Greek navy. The wreck remains here to this day—not a bad place to permanently set one’s anchor, in our opinion.
Benagil Sea Cave, West Algarve, Portugal
One doesn’t often think of the sea as having a front door. But sail through the Benagil Sea Cave on the southern coast of Portugal and you’ll feel as if you’re passing through that mythical portal. A stunning testament to rock, water, weather, and time, this sea-perched cave has two arched entrances to the ocean and a remarkable skylight that would impress even the most jaded designer on HGTV. Portugal’s Algarve coastline is renowned for many such imposing caves, cliffs, and rock formations, with almost all of them set dramatically on white-sand beaches. However, Benagil is the ultimate showstopper. Take note: If you want to experience this watery cave by sea when your boat isn’t nearby, you can rent kayaks from local vendors along Benagil beach. One caveat: It is inadvisable to attempt to swim through the arch’s gate because the 200-meter journey (almost the length of two football fields) can be fraught with dangerous tides.
Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe, California
Those who journey by foot to this magical and hidden part of Lake Tahoe on the Nevada-California border have to hike down from California Route 89. But the lucky few who find it by boat have a far more romantic approach, as well as a much finer experience once they’ve arrived. Arrival by water means you can visit the small island at the center of this almost-entirely-closed-off cove at your leisure. You’ll find, of all things, a Nordic-style house called Vikingsholm built in 1929 in the style of an 11th-century Swedish stone church. Back ashore on the cove’s main beach—which fronts cool, clear water—stunning scenery awaits in the form of undeveloped swaths of lake that have rightly earned the area National Natural Landmark honors. Once you get accustomed to being on dry land again, be sure to take advantage of the many great hiking trails that ring Emerald Bay and that afford unforgettable views of this out-of-the-way spot.
Monkey Beach, Ko Phi Phi, Thailand
Inhabited only by wild monkeys! No, it’s not your child’s bedroom during a playdate with 10 friends. We’re referring to the hidden little cove in Ko Phi Phi, Thailand, on the southwestern side of Tonsai Bay just northwest of Loh Dalum Bay. Affectionately—and quite accurately—known as Monkey Beach, this 150-meter-long stretch of white sand is framed by emerald water on one side and steep limestone cliffs, rich in vegetation, on the other. Home only to a colony of monkeys who are not shy about saying hello or demanding a banana, this pristine setting (also a topnotch snorkeling spot) is reached most easily by sea. Sure, you can hire a boat near Tonsai jetty to take you there, but we much prefer to rent a kayak and make the 40-minute journey ourselves. Be sure to take all your personal belongings with you after coming ashore. The monkeys are not just incurably curious; they’re also furry little thieves, apt to filch whatever strikes their fancy. Good luck getting your camera back.
Source D’Argent Beach, La Digue, Seychelles
Source d’Argent, on the southwest coast of La Digue in Seychelles, is one of the world’s most photographed beaches. And with good reason. Make that innumerable reasons, including giant, sculpted granite boulders; a forest of palms encroaching upon the soft white sand like bathers eager to swim alongside the region’s sea turtles; and coral-dappled, crystal-clear aquamarine waters. This stretch of paradise is like an amphitheater starring dramatic beauty, a playground for beach-loving gods. In fact, you’ve probably seen this breathtaking beach before in films or on TV shows and commercials. (Bacardi Rum or a Bounty chocolate bar, anyone?) The most stunning time of day is late afternoon, just before dusk, when the sunset turns this west-facing beach into a painted canvas of mesmerizing colors.